Researchers Sunil Bhatia and Kumar Ravi Priya published a new study in Theory and Psychology that examines how the globalizing of Euro-American psychology influences aspects of work and identity in India. Their work is organized around three major topics 1) the increased reliance on Euro-American “personality” assessments used by Indian corporations to recruit, screen, promote, and motivate Indian workers to become happy and positive, 2) the tensions and conflicts faced by Indian youth as they navigate their identity alongside the increasing influence of Western corporate culture, and 3) the neoliberal influence on mental health in India through the narratives of villagers in Nandigram.
“The presence of American cultural symbols and practices, the establishment of the IT industry and call centers, and the insertion of cross-cultural psychology, psychotherapy, testing, and personality evaluation through psychological science and new-age psychology is not only impacting the work life of young Indian workers, but it is also reconstituting the very meaning of ‘Indianness,’” Bhatia and Priya write.
In addressing the impact of globalizing Euro-American psychology, Bhatia and Priya first define “coloniality” as separate from the idea of colonialism. While colonialism is understood as one nation having sovereignty or power over another, coloniality “refers to the long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism.”
Coloniality is perpetuated through cultural patterns, dominant narratives, the “common sense” of one’s time, and in other ways that manifest themselves in books, media, and commonplace images, Bhatia and Priya explain. In India, coloniality is a “product of European modernity and reinforced through racial hierarchies, gender oppression, oppressive forms of labor, and it also shapes the current processes of neoliberal globalization,” as described by the authors.
In this way, coloniality and “neoliberal governmentality” work hand in hand to perpetuate current systems of oppression. Neoliberal governmentality is a term that refers to the idea that people can be governed through freedom and promoting of individualistic notions that people are masters of their abilities, choices, goals, and accomplishments.
Bhatia and Priya continue and describe that neoliberal governmentality “fosters particular regimes of corporate culture that often expects employees to find the resources within themselves or their self-narrative to deal with larger structural problems of low-wages, cost-cutting, and proliferation of contract jobs without access to healthcare nor retirement benefits.”
Researchers have highlighted how psychology has been complicit in supporting neoliberalism. Psychology has contributed to the narrative that workers should embrace “the tenets of ‘positive psychology’ for maximizing their productivity and efficiency.”
Ultimately, the idea of the “neoliberal self” is one that encourages productivity and participation in the labor force for the greater economic good. This leaves little room for understanding distress and suffering, mainly when the realities of distress and suffering are so intimately tied to sociopolitical context and history. Bhatia and Priya argue that psychologists have adopted theories of distress and suffering that promote the notion that suffering is an individual’s dilemma, manifesting out of distorted thought processes or internal pathologies.
India, as the site of growing foreign businesses, call centers, and software companies is now one of the most desirable locations for offshore offices. Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Management sectors employ a combined total of approximately 3.5 million people in India. In accordance with these economic changes, narratives of enterprise culture, aspiration, self-making, and maximizing self-value have trickled into contemporary Indian society across multiple dimensions of personal, work, and social life. Bhatia and Priya outline how this introduction of Euro-American psychological concepts through workplace culture perpetuates neoliberal and colonial power structures.
“The emergence of new types of management, capital, technology, and labor on a large scale has brought about transformations in social and psychological life in India. Euro-American cross-cultural psychology and management scholars have specifically emerged on a worldwide scale to give meaning to complex problems of history, culture, power, identity, and conflict through uncomplicated vocabularies of self-fulfillment, flexibility, global best practices, productivity, collectivism vs. individualism, and interdependent vs. independent selves,” they write.
“When corporate cross-cultural psychological science merges with the neoliberal language of enterprise, structural inequality, cross-cultural racism, mental health issues, and ethnocentrism become camouflaged as simple problems of cross-cultural difference and cultural misunderstandings that can be solved through individual effort, self-help, therapy, importation of Western mental health taxonomies, and diversity training.”
Moreover, Euro-American mental health taxonomies do not neatly map onto the lives and experiences of those in India. This is because labels, such as PTSD which was initially developed in the context of war veterans in the U.S., do not capture the sociopolitical dynamics that are directly implicated in individuals’ distress. For example, survivors of natural disasters and the political and religious violence in the Gujarat and West Bengal states of India experienced distress that was intricately connected to the community divide that played a central role in resource availability and conflict. However, psychiatric interventions that focused on individual PTSD symptoms were offered as a treatment strategy. Bhatia and Priya draw on the work of cross-cultural psychiatrist Derek Summerfield to unpack how PTSD fails when it is applied in this context. They write:
“He states that it was not only that the survivors found the category of PTSD to be irrelevant for their post-trauma experiences, but the PTSD treatment packages often funded by the corporate social responsibility segment of various organizations also made little sense to survivors. For the survivors, more than their personal trauma, it was the inflictions caused by the socioeconomic and political conditions on the opportunities to engage in their traditional occupation and on their collective (or religious) identity that was highly distressing.”
Bhatia and Priya align with a “decolonizing perspective” which aims to interrogate dominant cultural assumptions embedded within Euro-American psychology. This means that they pay attention to counter-narratives and the stories that are frequently absent from the dominant discourse. A decolonizing approach not only challenges the universality and transferability of Western psychology, but it highlights the ways in which it promotes certain ways of being that distorts histories, stories, and people’s experiences.
In the past 25 years, management schools and corporate offices in India have been influenced by Euro-American psychological and organizational language, Bhatia and Priya write. According to these influences, a successful business is one in which senior-level managers harness Western mental constructs, such as soft skills, teamwork, self-actualization, flow, and various other cognitive capacities, to create a specific culture in the workplace. In doing so, Indian corporate managers and HR departments have increasingly utilized Western psychological tests, assessments, and training techniques for recruitment, promotion, and training. Two commonly used assessments are the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Transactional Analysis (TA) inventories. These are used to evaluate employee traits while also informing training toward maximizing employee efficiency and productivity at work.
Results on these inventories are purported to represent employees’ “true states-of-being or personality types,” write Bhatia and Priya. The outcomes are used to inform not only management decisions but the creation of actionable goals and plans. This method of quantifying growth supports employees as they endeavor to self-surveil and alter multiple dimensions of their selfhood to align with corporate ideals.
“Urban Indian workers are expected to largely follow the ideology of Western corporate culture through individual transformation, embracing a self-Orientalizing framework, acquiring new behaviors of increased emotional intelligence, assertiveness, flexibility, productivity, and self-regulation,” the authors write.
In addition, cross-cultural psychology and management discourses are increasingly concerned with teamwork, productivity, and management. Terms such as “global best practices” and “management of cultural differences” are frequently invoked in these settings. Through this lens, communication between Indian software engineers and their teams and clients have been identified as a key problem. This is not because Indian software engineers lack fluency in English, rather, their cultural communication style and “cultural perceptions about time, work, productivity, and planning” are identified as deficient.
Bhatia and Priya explain that the “cross-cultural” discourse invoked by management experts in cultural sensitivity workshops, seminars, and training emphasizes that Western models of business are the aspiring model for organizations around the world. Although Indian culture is understood to conflict with the Western values and ideals built into “best global practices,” Indian corporations are encouraged to acculturate and adapt to this model without abandoning their core Indian identities.
Bhatia and Priya go on to explore how the globalizing of Western corporate psychological concepts reaches beyond the workplace into advertisements and other forms of media. This Western and corporatizing influence has extended to the reshaping of self and identity for urban Indian youth as they navigate their work, family, and social lives, the authors argue.
In his ethnographic research on Indian youth identities, Bhatia found that they were “strategically constructing cosmopolitan forms of ‘appropriate Indianness.’” An aspiring identity informed by Western culture constructed to move across borders as a “global citizen” and centered on class-based “fetishizing of transnational mobility.” In this way, the colonial and neoliberal influence has played into this cosmopolitan image informed by colonial social hierarchies and corporate work culture. This has led to a reimagining of selfhood impacting practices in work, romance, marriage, sex, family, and education, Bhatia and Priya write. Further, it has created an ongoing conflict between performing a Western, “individualized” identity and navigating one’s traditions.
Bhatia and Priya connect these recent transformations across Indian identity and culture to the globalizing of Western mental health. In Western mental health discourse, distress is identified as a pathology within the person, treatment focuses almost exclusively on the use of pharmaceuticals and therapy, and suffering becomes a problem to be “outsourced.” If friends and family deal with one’s suffering, it is understood to detract from their work life and time. Alternatively, “emotional outsourcing and social robotics,” the authors write, are utilized instead, in the form of hiring others to provide emotional care.
Not only does this practice distance individuals from pain, they contend, but it hurts those that are economically disadvantaged. These populations, including slum dwellers and farmers in India, experience the most debilitating effects as they are displaced from their homes and communities in the name of development and other economic policies.
This changing system is one that has increasingly relied upon Euro-American psychological notions of individual pathology that deflect from the disturbing effects of socio-political strife and tensions. Corporate culture has shifted toward maximizing personal productivity and minimizing obstacles to this goal, such as caregiving and distress. Should these obstacles arise, caregiving and pharmaceutical treatment are outsourced, for those who can afford it. Those who cannot afford these options bear both the burden of sociopolitical tensions in addition to facing the effects, such as forced evictions, that result from increasing neoliberalism. This is what Bhatia and Priya refer to as “double victimization.”
“These experiences of social suffering caused by the neoliberal economic policies of the government indeed need to be explored through structural analysis rather than by adopting the uncritical language of Euro-American conceptions of mental health that often focuses on universalistic diagnostic categories such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” they write.
“Unless a critical and narrative-based exploration of human life is undertaken, the threat of double victimization—first by the structural forces of political violence and second by the misapplication of Western neoliberal conceptions of selfhood, wellbeing, and mental health—cannot be addressed meaningfully.”
Priya researched the stories of survivors in Nandigram, India who experienced the loss of a family member because of surrounding violence or who were themselves tortured. Priya’s findings offer a model that is grounded in locals’ experiences and the temporal and contextual meaning of their distress. This is in contrast to the alternative: uncritically applying a label from Euro-American mental health taxonomies that does not capture the unique violence and turbulence occurring in Nandigram.
Priya’s model identified that individuals experienced three core elements to their distress, 1) a sense of betrayal and harm caused by those who were previously trusted, 2) an overwhelming sense of loss, and 3) “biographical disruption.” While at first, these states may appear to overlap with Western trauma constructs, it is important to note how they are described not as individual symptoms but as occurring within the events themselves and heavily involve the individual’s relationship to their village, government, and family members. Priya describes them as follows:
“Betrayed self: Feeling extremely distressed about the breaking of trust and harm caused by people who were trusted by the sufferer.
- An intense feeling of being betrayed by fellow villagers: Distress associated with trust broken by and harm caused by the fellow villagers.
- An intense feeling of being betrayed by the state government: Distress associated with the trust broken by the state government that had promised to listen to the villager’s voices.
Overwhelmed by loss: A distressing experience of shattering of will or an enabling meaning in life resulting from the death of a family member.
Biographical disruption: Distress due to sudden and drastic changes in the perceived nature or demands of familial roles and responsibilities (such as earning the livelihood for the family or consoling the grief of a family member).”
Priya shares the story of Ramesh, a farmer who felt extreme betrayal from their state government. Ramesh states that “The biggest cheating was done by the state government as it proclaimed that it cared for farmers, but it began to kill us.” Bhatia and Priya summarize their point about the neoliberal influence succinctly as they write:
“Given neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual enterprise, happiness and achievement, mental health breakdown, or mental health trauma resulting from the breakdown of the social welfare system and loss of community bonds is often treated in terms of individual pathologies and disease.”
They touch on the colonial implications of this growing influence of Western psychology:
“One of the main purposes of this article is to show how psychology is, wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in advancing the neoliberal discourse of self in Indian work organizations, economic policies of the state, and social life. A decolonial lens that focuses on the ‘coloniality’ of psychology shows that the psychological training given to English speaking middle- and upper-class Indian software engineers and call center agents points to new forms of cultural and psychological imperialism that have gained currency through neoliberal flows of outsourcing and expansion of global corporations.”
Bhatia and Priya conclude with the compelling statement that Euro-American psychology represents a “psy-discipline” that is being imported into the fabric of Indian corporate development, human resource operations, and the social and political lives of people.
Bhatia, S., & Priya, K. R. (2018). Decolonizing culture: Euro-American psychology and the shaping of neoliberal selves in India. Theory & Psychology, 28(5), 645-668. DOI: 10.1177/0959354318791315 (Link)